January 2015 Newsletter
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January 2015

What's New

Next month we will be rolling out two new programs: Advanced Canine Training and Advanced Feline Training. These advanced programs will go beyond the basic and can be completed on their own or in concert with another certificate. Look for more details in the February newsletter and on our website next month.


Animal Laughter

You know a dog is (usually) happy if she wags her tail. But how about other animals? For example, is it even possible to determine whether a rat is happy? Scientists say yes. Rats don’t smile or wag their tails. Instead, they do something surprisingly human. They laugh.

Rats produce an ultrasonic vocalization that cannot be called anything but laughter. It is a squeaky chirping sound that they emit when they experience pleasure or if they anticipate it. For example, they create these chirps when playing with other rats. The 50 kHz sound has been shown to indicate a positive emotional state.

Rats also laugh when subjected to “playful, experimenter-administered, manual, somatosensory stimulation,” better known as tickling. In fact, being tickled by experimenters causes rats to laugh more than they do with any other stimulus.

Neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp experimented with laughter in rats in the 1990s. He described the procedure as follows: “…The tickling was done with the right hand and consisted of rapid initial finger movements across the back with a focus on the neck, followed by rapidly turning the animals over on their backs, with vigorous tickling of their ventral surface, followed by release after a few seconds of stimulation. This was repeated throughout each tickling session. Even though the tickling was brisk and assertive, care was taken not to frighten the animals.”

Panskepp found that rats sought out tickling by humans. Rats housed alone sought it out more than rats housed with other rats, indicating a desire for positive social engagement that tickling fulfilled. When a hand that previously tickled a rat stops, the rat will emit more laughter and play-bite the hand. This is the same behavior they use on other rats when they want to play.

ratPanskepp affirmed that tickling is positive for rats by experimenting on a group of recently tickled rats and a group of rats that were just regularly handled. The tickled rats responded more optimistically to ambiguous stimuli while the control group was more cautious. This indicates that tickling produces a more optimistic and positive mood in rats. However, not all rats enjoy tickling. Some do not respond with laughter and do not enjoy it as much as others do. In Panskepp’s experiment, it was the rats that enjoyed tickling that became more optimistic. In fact, rats that enjoy tickling have been proven to be friendlier and better able to deal with stress.

Science has found that whether a rat laughs while being tickled is a stable trait that can undergo selection. Because of this, scientists have bred rats specifically so that they will enjoy tickling. They seek it out, play more, laugh more, and are extremely motivated in training if their reward is tickling.

Rats are particularly ticklish in their nape area, which is also where juveniles target their own play activities, such as pinning behavior. This again links rat laughter to social interaction and positive experience. In addition, rats laugh less while being tickled when they are exposed to negative stimuli as well, such as cat odor or bright lights. When pups were given the choice between two adult rats, one that laughed frequently while being tickled vs. one that did not, they spent significantly more time with the “happier” rat.

Although they laugh, this does not mean that rats have a sense of humor like humans do. Laughter simply indicates playful social interaction and pleasure. Some scientists have questioned whether rats might laugh if they saw a predator fall. However, it is speculated that such cognitive processes are beyond rats and that rat laughter is more closely related to playing than humor.

rat

It may seem like something out of a cartoon or a children’s book, but rats do laugh, especially when tickled. Next time you see a rat, instead of freaking out, try tickling it!

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Career Internships (Marine Mammals)

In the last several years, it has become increasingly difficult to get a job at all after college, let alone a job doing something you love. For those passionate about marine animal training and research, however, there is a way to amp up your resume and impress employers: an internship in the field. Getting the job of your dreams may not be so out of reach. Internships can prepare you for landing a job and being successful throughout your career.

Internships are a crucial components of preparing for a career with marine mammals. In this excruciatingly competitive field an internship doesn’t just make you stand out – it’s virtually required. An internship helps develop your resume into an impressive representation of your work in the field. Furthermore, it helps you build confidence for interviews and may even lead to a job within the institution. Interning is the best way to show your employer that you will be valuable from day one. Even if it does not lead to a job, an internship can provide impressive references that can attest to your ; it also helps you to build a strong networking system.

Internships are also useful as you try out a field and determining if it is right for you. They provide a taste of what a career path might look like and aid you in determining your ideal job. While the experience you gain in an internship may not perfectly match your career path, it will still provide transferrable skills and help you demonstrate your work ethic. It will expose you to professionalism and allow you to observe how skills and ideas are applied in the real world. Marine mammal internships allow interns to go behind the scenes and see how a facility operates.

Research Internships
Internships in research should complement your classroom education and provide a comprehensive, well rounded experience. Interns often have the opportunity to observe college accredited seminars and even have access to professional journal articles and updates on global marine mammal issues. They can work with the public by conducting workshops and answering questions. They often perform library research and sometimes conduct hands-on activities. Some interns even have a coach that works with them on a weekly basis to help them accomplish their professional goals. One of these internships can make a world of difference as you prepare for a successful career.

Training Internships
In a training internship, students typically work hands-on with animals, trainers, educators and other crew members. These internships will expose you to all aspects of animal training and care. They will train you in food preparation, daily cleaning and facility maintenance as well as training and feeding. Training internships may include a good deal of public speaking, interacting with people that want to learn more about your animals.

Animals involved in these internships are often trained for medical management behaviors such as blood draw, gastric and fecal samples, and even ultrasound. This gives interns the opportunity to learn about procedures that are vital to the health and management of marine mammals. Interns can challenge the animals’ intelligence by engaging them in mentally stimulating behaviors like mimicking and match-to-sample behaviors. They may also get the chance to work on fun aerial behaviors such as bows, somersaults and speed swims.

So…given the critical importance of internships, how do we find an appropriate one?

For more information, see our article on Finding Internships in our upcoming February newsletter.

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Cats of the Midlands

It started out as a normal night for Wendy Lochridge as she gazed out her window. However, at about 5 p.m., Wendy saw something that chilled her to the bone. Standing under a tree in her backyard about 300 yards away was an enormous black panther. The creature was reportedly about five feet long and disappeared into the bushes before Wendy could snap a picture.

For years, people have speculated that big cats roam the midlands of England and Wales, notably Shropshire and Mid Wales. In these areas, best known for their scenic beauty, folks share stories of exotic and dangerous cats roaming the countryside. The sparse population, coupled with a countryside dominated by farming, make it seem possible that big cats could survive without being seen – or at least rarely seen. Sightings spark fear and debate across the region. Inhabitants argue the facts with the zeal of those sighting UFOs or claiming to have seen Bigfoot.

In the past five years, there have been 14 reported sightings of big cats in these areas. Believers claim that big cats have roamed Shropshire for centuries. Some people believe they escaped from zoos and now roam free. Others speculate that are freed or escaped exotic pets, stemming back to the time when this practice was legal.

In addition to passionate testimony, there have been several instances of big cats being recorded on camera in pictures and videos; however, none of these are clear enough to definitively prove that the animal shown is a big cat. One alleged big cat was found dead in 2009, but it was later proven to be a large domestic cat.

In 1989, an Asian jungle cat was found severely injured in Ludlow, a market town in Shropshire. This clearly proved the existence of at least one exotic cat in the Midlands. It also sparked speculation that other exotic cat sightings were the offspring of the jungle cat and domestic cats. This would make them larger than normal cats, but not entirely wild animals. These hybrids are very dangerous, however, and may explain many of the big cat sightings across the area.

One of the most famous alleged sightings is of the Beast of Exmoor in southwest England. It is said to be a large, catlike animal with a long tail and dark gray or black fur. Sightings state that it is between four and six feet with dark green eyes. It has been said to kill livestock, a belief enhanced by the fact that 80 sheep were slaughtered during the height of the sightings.  Researchers believe the Beast of Exmoor may be a melanistic or black leopard.

Despite the superstitions and rumors, there is no conclusive evidence that big cats have lived in Shropshire. In fact, there have been a number of events that undermine these claims. Many photographs or sightings can be explained away, such as one photo of a big cat that was revealed to be a cardboard cutout. Another one was simply a stuffed animal posed to look threatening from far away.

Other signs of the cats roaming Shropshire include tracks, scratch marks on trees, skeletons of prey, hair samples and droppings. Yet non-believers argue that there would be corpses found if big cats truly lived there for extended periods. Whether the rumors are true or not, living in an area that might harbor big cats is enough to put a touch of fear in most anyone, especially those with small pets or livestock. But for now, the cats of the Midlands must remain an enigma much like the Loch Ness monster and the yeti.

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Happy Zoo Year!

Baby New Year isn’t the only newborn 2015 is celebrating. Zoos all over the world have been blessed with little miracles as we flip our calendars. Many endangered species have reproduced and created new lives at the beginning of this New Year. Here are a few notable examples.

The Brookfield Zoo in Chicago gained a new Gray Seal Pup on New Year’s Day this year.  It was the first of its species to be born at the Brookfield Zoo. The Zoo currently has six Gray Seals, making it the largest collection of Gray Seals in any North American Institution. Gray Seals are not endangered, but threatened.

On January 2, a baby giraffe named Katja was born in Kronberg, Germany in the Opel-Zoo. Katja is a Rothschild giraffe, an endangered species also known as the Baringo or Ugandan giraffe. There are only 670 of these giraffes left in the wild and 450 in captivity. The Rothschild giraffe is unique in that it has five horns rather than two. It also has paler and less defined coloration than many other giraffes. It is native to Uganda and west-central Kenya.

The next day, January 3, brought the life of Tanu, a baby Grevy’s Zebra to the San Diego Zoo. Tanu is the fifth baby for mother Bakavu and the 140th Grevy's zebra born at the San Diego Zoo. Grevy’s Zebras are born with unique stripes and are the largest species in the horse family. Because the species suffered from an anthrax outbreak in 2005, there are only 2,250 left in the wild. This is half as many as there were 20 years ago.

On January 5, a Coquerel's Sifaka Lemur was born in the Sacramento Zoo in California. Caquerel’s Sifaka Lemurs are native to the dry deciduous forests of Madagascar's southern desert and can live up to 30 years in the wild. There are approximately 10,000 living in Madagascar and 59 in captivity.

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